by Robert Frerichs

The highway is the path that leads us to tomorrow. The highway is the relentless, uncaring movement of time.

The asphalt tore beneath our wheels. It looked like the belt of an angry sanding machine set on high. Charlie Krogen had held the gas pedal of his 1972 Pontiac Le Mans to the floor for more than three miles of Nebraskan black-top highway.

CHECK IT OUT! Charlie shouted to be heard over the roar of the V8 engine. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel, and his eyes never left the road when I looked at him; he just nodded, ever so slightly at the speedometer.

I didn’t have to lean over far in the small, hard top coupe to see that the needle was pointing straight down, trembling softly between the B and the R of the word BRAKE. Exactly what that meant was open to debate. The round speedometers markings stopped at one hundred forty miles an hour. The one forty mark was located at about five o clock position, the word BRAKE (which was an indicator light for the park brake) was centered at the bottom of the speedometer at the six o clock position. By rights this meant that we were doing somewhere around a hundred and fifty to a hundred and sixty miles per hour. I glanced at Charlie again; he was trying without success to look relaxed.

I looked back out the window, and began to wonder what level of scared I should be. My reason told me I should be demanding we slow down, my mind told me that I should be afraid to breathe, my heart told me that for this brief moment at least, I was truly alive. In the dusty wasteland of northern Nebraska, feeling alive is not a sensation you let go of lightly.

Less than ten minutes ago, Charlie (better known as CK) and I were sitting in history class watching the clock. Our sophomore class in Mason Public High School boasted a grand total of seventy-eight students, many of whom had to travel more than thirty miles each way to get there. This number was down from the all time high of one hundred and twenty-three students who had graduated in nineteen seventy-two, the year this Pontiac was new. Mercifully the bell had finally rung at exactly three forty-five and we made a beeline to CK’s car in the school parking lot. We hadn’t even bothered to stop by our lockers to drop our books off, we just threw them in the back seat. On Monday, after the weekend, we would reclaim them, untouched, and carry them in to restart the drudgery that is a week of high school. CK often gave me a ride home from school, because I had no car of my own. At fifteen years of age I dont know if its right to say that were drinking buddies, but thats what were.

The prairie highway was straight and clear of traffic, so CK eased the car over into the middle of the road. At this speed the car has a tendency to float, and repeated high speed trips had taught CK to allow room for the car to drift some before it hit the ditch. He kept his foot to the floor and the Le Mans was giving us all it had. I could smell the motor, the grease and oil boiling on the manifold, but the main sensory input was the tremendous sound that a gas combustion engine makes when it exceeds the red line on the tachometer. The tachometer measures the amount of times the engine turns in a minute. The General Motors factory recommends never to go beyond four thousand five hundred revolutions per minute, and there is a red line on the gauge at that mark. I knew by the sound that CK was well into the six thousands. The noise was incredible. With the engine working this hard it consumed somewhere around a gallon of gas every two to three miles. You could almost watch the gas gauge drop. If you wanted to take your eyes off the road.

The late afternoon sun was bright and the trees that lined the ditches on the right-hand side of the highway had their fall colors on. I was looking at other side of the road though, watching the telephone poles go by and trying to figure if we left the black top at this speed, could we squeeze between them. I figured we couldn’t.

A half mile ahead was the turn-off on to a dirt road that led to CK’s parents farm house. It was easy to know when CK’s foot came off the gas, because the tone of the engine changed completely. The high pitched, white noise roar of the engine suddenly changed to a low hum that decreased slowly as the motor gave up its fight against the wind. He began carefully slowing the car down, using very little brake. I imagined it was like landing a jet.

Im not sure when it was exactly that I realized that CK and I were living in a world of old machines. It was a thought that had been building slowly along with a certain feeling of doom and hopelessness. CK and I knew everything there was to know about cars. We weren’t old enough to have a real license yet, just a school permit that allowed us to drive to and from school. Still we could tear an engine apart and put it back together without help from anyone. We could listen to a motor without raising the hood and tell you what the problem was with it. We knew, for instance, that the carburetor took in gas and air, mixed it and then sent it to the cylinder to be compressed by the eight pistons and ignited by the spark plugs. We had improved on the standard equipment of CK’s Pontiac engine by taking a larger carburetor we found in the junkyard to get more gas, taller pistons we bought from a catalog to compress the mixture more tightly, and top of the line spark plugs to ignite the whole thing more efficiently.

We also knew that the exploded gas is removed from the cylinder in the form of exhaust by the opening and closing of valves. The amount that these valves open and close is controlled by a camshaft. The exhaust is then transferred to the muffler and out the tail pipe by the exhaust manifold. To make CK’s car even more powerful, meaning faster, we replaced the original camshaft with one that would allow the valves to stay open longer, allowing in more gas and air, then letting out more exhaust. We put a special exhaust manifold on the engine, called a header, that let these greater amounts of exhaust out of the engine. We had created a monster, bursting past its own speedometer into an uncharted realm. We had done it for no reason other than the oldest reason in the world, because we could.

As we rounded the corner and headed down the dirt road to Ck’s house I felt like we were crawling.

CK and I lived our whole short lives in a world of machines. From the tractors on Ck’s farm, to the big, stationary diesel engines that ran the irrigation systems in the fields, the tiny gas engines that powered the lawn mower and the corn auger, to the automatic feeder and watering machines in the cow pens and hog pens, our world was alive with mechanical inventions. I had learned in that history class (the one that CK never paid attention in) that these were the finest fruits of the industrial age. I also knew by looking at computers being installed in Mr. Benson’s class, that the age of machine was coming to an end. The knowledge that CK and I had was no longer valued at our school. We were dorks, gearheads, drunks, and we were dinosaurs. No one cared about the machines, how they worked. All that mattered now was if you could play a game on a computer. No one cared if you could drive a car at over one hundred miles an hour like CK could. You were really only noticed if you could create a game on a computer. It didn’t matter if you could build an engine from the ground up at fifteen like I could. The future was coming, and I could see I was being left behind, watching it drive away.

Its true the computer is also a machine of sorts, but CK and I had learned our mechanics from our fathers, brothers, and relatives. None of them knew anything about computers. Neither did Mr. Benson, I had found out, when I asked him if we could look inside one.

Ck’s house was built from scratch by his father, the son of a Polish immigrant. During its construction he had nearly cut all the fingers off of his right hand with a power saw. The doctor who sewed them back on had saved them, but had not been skilled enough to leave him with any feeling in them. That wouldn’t have been bad except it took away the one thing he had loved the most, playing the piano. Ck’s dad had only made it to the eight grade, but he knew how to run a farm. Thats why he was still barely afloat when all the others around him had been bought out by the corporations. He had loved to play the piano, and was completely self taught. Now it sat in the basement, collecting dust.

We turned on the television to watch the X rated channel off the satellite dish before Ck’s parents got back from checking the fields up north. Unfortunately there was nothing but snow on the screen and try as we might we couldn’t get it to work; so we took a couple of shot guns out of the gun closet and went down to the creek to shoot frogs for a while.

Shooting frogs was seriously business to me and CK. Seriously funny that is. If you angle the shot just right, so that it strikes the sand right beneath his belly; the frog will flip up in the air and land in the water upside down like he’s been hit by a depth charge. We practiced our technique for about an hour, hunting frogs all up and down the river bank. CK and I had been best friends since the third grade, when we met at an Avon party our mothers went to. We did everything together, thats why when he wanted to try breaking the legendary record of Vinny Havelchek I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.

I want to try and break the Bennett to Mason record, CK said while we sat resting on the bridge.

You know thats fifteen miles, CK, I said, and the record is six minutes!

I know I think I can break it. He said with determination. Vinny was the greatest driver ever. He’s racing in the NASCAR circuit now. If Im ever going to get there I have to break his record.

I dont know man, wed have to average around one forty, one fifty. Thats hauling ass! Besides even if we made it who’d believe us?

Id know, CK said.

Yeah, well, it sounds like a good way to get killed. I shot back knowing it was a futile effort.

Maybe, Ck’s voice dropped to a mumble, but it ain’t like we got a future anyway.

All highways lead to the future, except the highways left behind.

CK was my best friend. I guess thats why he didn’t tell me when he tried to make the run. In the twisted metal of the Pontiac they found not only his body, but the body of a small deer, at least thats what they thought it was. From the tremendous impact of the car into the telephone pole and the field beyond, it was difficult to determine anything other than the fact that it was a machine; an old worthless machine.